It's on America's tortured brow ...

Trip Start Oct 29, 2011
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Trip End Jun 01, 2012


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Flag of Chile  ,
Friday, February 3, 2012

....that mickey mouse has grown up a cow 
Now the workers have stuck for fame,
cause Lennon's on sale again
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads

So the end of the Saga holiday – Libby, John, Mary and I were on a flight at 5.25am from Punta Arenas to Santiago. Libby was getting very stressed at check-in because we hadn’t arrived 16 hours before the flight. Were we going to make it? This was a very tiny airport with only 3 gates (it was harldly Heathrow)– of course we were. I came very close to punching her lights out (never actually punched anyone, let alone managing the lights out bit), but Mary managed to restrain me. To once again highlight where we were in the world there was a flight to Antartica on the departures board (Pingu Airways). John was staying in Santiago for a few days so it was just me, Mary and Libby left. Fortunately Libby had not managed to check her baggage through to London so had to go and get it and re-check in (no idea how she had not done this – Mary had got her’s all the way through to Glasgow, and I managed to somehow explain my flight situation). So Mary and I went to Starbucks. I got a little but excited at this because it was something i recognised from home and they didn’t have empanadas. They even had brown sofas. So after a cappucino and a muffin and as quick look round the shop (I was trying to find any book in English, but they only had Eat, Pray Love, which I’ve already read – made me realise so far I’d done Eat, Drink copious amounts of wine and beer, Sit on a lot of buses) so Mary spent the next 3 hours playing hide and seek from Libby (well we just hid).

I was off to San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile. The reason I was heading here was because it was the last place on my list that I hadn’t been to yet in Chile and Argentina that my friend Tracy had emailed me a few months before – places she and Paul had been on their honeymoon - so who was I to argue. My original plan was to fly to Salta in northern Argentina and then do a mini-trip to San Pedro (it’s not far across the border), but as it turns out my last minute change of plan worked far better. I’ve never booked a flight for the next day before, usually it’s a least 6 months in advance for me  – was all quite liberating really.

So I finally boarded my flight to Calama, which is the nearest town to San Pedro that you can fly to from Santiago. At this stage I got a bit scared and very homesick. I had to say goodbye to Mary who was off back to the UK (turns out she finally gave Libby the slip in the toilets in Madrid airport). I was heading off into the unknown and this was when it was going to get a bit more real. Now I know I have been travelling for 3 months now, but this was the first time I was really going to be by myself for a while (until I was meeting up with Jim in Rio in the middle of February). The rest of the trip I had either been with a group or with Helen,  except for a few days in Quito, Sao Paulo and Iguasu. And here I was about to board a flight to take me to the middle of the Atacama desert, I still barely spoke any Spanish (I have now progressed from ordering wine, beer, and water onto coffees as well). This was the real deal now. This was what it was all about – me travelling alone and finding myself and on the way finding myself a bit I hoped. Part of me just wanted to turn around and get the Iberia flight to Madrid (I was that desperate I was even willing to fly for 13 hours on that hell hole of an airline). But I took a deep breath and headed off onto the flight.

As we came into land it all became even more real – yes I was actually in the middle of the desert, and I wasn’t too sure how i was going to get to San Pedro de Atacama where I needed to be. Seriously Liz what were you thinking – plonking yourself in the middle of the driest desert in the world by yourself. However, when I arrived I found a desk selling transfers and I got myself a ticket. Then I had a nervous few minutes waiting for my bag at the reclaim (is it just me who gets really nervous at this point – will my bag appear? I get really nervous when it’s been checked through on a connection. Mine was one of the last bags through – I was so excited to see the big red fella – it’s now 24.2 kilos).

So got myself into another minibus (as if I hadn’t spent enough time in one over the last 24 hours !), well it wasn’t just any minibus – that would be just silly, it was the one that would transfer me to San Pedro de Atacama. Anyway put the ipod on and the Spice Girls, 'Say You’ll Be There’ (Yes I know – but after my experience with Pink Floyd I have well and truly returned to my usual cheesy dross – sometimes in this life you just got to stick with what you know and what is safe). Anyway the point – the landscape around me was just like the video to the song (take a look on youtube – just like that).

So after an hour we arrived in the town of San Pedro de Atacama – or actually it’s more of a village. It’s very different to anywhere I have been before. The Lonely Planet describes it as an adobe precordillera (had no idea on that one either – apparently it’s is a Spanish geographical term for hills and mountains lying before a greater range. The term is derived from cordillera meaning mountain range and applied usually to the Andes) oasis. Am a little bit concerned by all the adobe buildings – a great building material I know but it’s very susceptible to earthquake damage (Bam Earthquake, Iran 2003). And I’m in an earthquake area – fabulous ! On the eastern side of the village is a line of volcanoes on the Bolivian and Argentinian borders. The closest one is Licanabur at 5916m.

So I arrived at the Iquisa hostel, which is 10mins walk from the centre. It’s run by a lovely native (their description) family. No idea what the mother is saying but the son Roberto speaks a bit of English.  Had to try to get over the fact that this hostel is probably the worst I’ve ever stayed in (no actually that one in Zakopane in Poland wins hands down). Am in a room with a big fat Brazilian guy, a lovely German guy and a German girl who only pops into sleep (no idea where her stuff is).

My first task on arrival was to organise leaving (but you’ve only just arrived!). It was Saturday and the plan was to leave on Thursday. I thought that I would be super organised and book my bus ticket to Salta, across the border in Argentina, for a few days time. The first bus company pretty much laughed at me and informed me the first bus with a free seat was for a week on Monday (6th Feb). Finally I managed to get the last seat on the Friday bus to Salta. (I nearly hugged the woman when she offered it to me). Apparently all of the buses are full of Argentinians heading to the coast of Chile for their holidays from Salta. So in full panic mode I also booked my bus from Salta to Buenos Aires for the 9th February (20 hours – I can’t wait), so I can connect with my flight to Rio. For this one I was the 3rd person booking onto the bus, but I didn’t want to take any chances (so much for the new fly by the seat of my pants Liz – I’m back to advanced booking Liz).

So I awoke early, due to the Brazilian guy I was sharing with taking part in this desert run called the Mountain Do. You can either run a 5k, a 23k or a 42k – in the desert in 30 degrees heat. It started at 7 am. I think it’s mostly Brazilians running. I was pretty surprised he was runnning – he doesn’t look like he could run for a bus, let alone do 23k in the very hot desert, he  was hardly James Cracknell (James did the Marathon des Sables). Anyway he snored most of the night and kept me and the lovely German guy awake (think his name was Mattheus)– we did have a chat in the hope we would be so loud it would wake him but so such joy.  

So onto the next day and suffering a bit from the lack of sleep and it was now exactly 3 months since I flew out and it was all starting to hit. It really didn’t help that I was in the middle of the Atacama desert and it seemed a rather long way from home, from my family, from my friends and from everything I knew. So I am having an Ellen McAuthur moment, you know the one when she is is tears as she has to climb the mast again (yes I know it seems like she spent most of her two round the world sailing stints in tears).  And yes I did watch the documentaries and thought– sorry you are bit upset Ellen but you did decide to get into the boat (doesn’t help that you called it B&Q – even Homebase or Do it all would have been better – and try to sail single-handedly (that’s by yourself) around the world and yes it has a mast that might need climbing if the sail gets a bit tangled and yes the weather might be a tad inclement in the southern ocean so please stop blathering on, put a coat on and get up the mast. So ok – I’m not Ellen McAuthur – I hope I’m not that flippin’ miserable, but I do get it (and this is what my Mum would rightfully be saying now)– I chose to get into this situation, I chose to go off travelling and really iritate with you my wonderful stories and pictures when you are flippin’ miserable work at work so and it’s all about taking the rough with the smooth. But I was having a pretty difficult day.

I was also feeling a bit jaded – it took me a few hours to work out why but then I suddenly remembed that San Pedro de Atacama was at an altitude of 2400m.I used the day to have a look around some of the shops and book myself onto some tours. On and then it started to rain – actually it really chucked it down. Apparently it only rains here about 4 days a year – brilliant – just when I’m here. It was my own fault – I had just updated my status on facebook, which I hardly ever do – and made some comment about it being very hot and I was lying in a hammock – then 10 mins later the heavens opened – so I won’t be doing that again. I also decided that I wasn’t going to be able to cope with another 5 nights in this hostel. I had only booked it because it was the only accommodation I could find at the last minute (also because of the race). I managed to book into another hostel in a couple of days time in which I could have my own room and my own bathroom and not try to share with 20 others. The following day I had booked myself onto the geysers tour which left at 4am so I had an early night. There was only me and the German girl left so I was pretty hopeful I could get some sleep. Or so I thought ! A group of dutch teenagers came in a 1am and woke everyone up. So I went out a politely asked them to be quiet as they were waking everyone up. They did seem a bit shocked but seemed to take it in. Well briefly. They carried on talking at the top of their voices for the next two hours. I did try to ask again (well not really ask – more of a tell – it took me back to school trips when the kids woke you up at 2am – unfortunately I didn’t have the option of threatening these guys with ringing their parents– though I did consider it)  for them to shut up but still no joy. They just couldn’t comprehend that they were being inconsiderate in any shape or form. So I trudged out (extremely quietly – no idea why) at 4am to get on the minibus to the geysers.

The El Tatio geysers are only 94km away (close to the Bolivian border) but they are at an altitude of 4300m, The road is appalling, with countless turns and a washboard surface guaranteed to rearrange your internal organs. We arrived just before dawn and it was freezing cold. So with over 80 active geysers, El Tatio is the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and the third largest field in the world. Some websites say it’s the highese geyser field in the world but apparently there are others that are higher. Surrounding the field are volcanoes – the most famous being El Tatio.

So we arrive at the edge of the geothermic field, a breathtaking Dante's Inferno of more than 100 puffing, steaming and spewing geysers. Underneath the field is a subterranen river which provides the water. This water is heated by magma a few hundred meters below the surface. The water here boils at only 85C because we are altitude.We carefully make our way over the mineral-encrusted earth for a closer look. The geysers erupt from holes as small as a bathroom sink drain, to yawning cavities as large as a manhole in a city street. Some belch steam like giant tea kettles; others resemble cauldrons of boiling water. Still others spew pillars of mineral-laden water, creating coloured cones. We then break for breakfast. Derek, our guide takes us to a small geyser and pulls out of the boiling water a bag of eggs, some chocolate milk and some milk. All of it has been heated/cooked by the geothermal energy. So we have a breakfast of boiled egg rolls with chocolate milk. Then we are taken to a pool that is 35. I had planned to go in, but it was still freezing outside and it just didn’t look that tempting. Those getting out were attempting to run across the car park and change behind buses in the cold. It wasn’t exactly the Blue Lagoon in Iceland (what no naked showering when you’ve got 20 kids – well they were aged 17 in tow?). There also wasn’t a blizzard so not for me.

On my return to the hostel (now 12.30pm) found that all of my new Dutch hostel-mates had just got up !! So I got onto the internet and found a lovely eco-lodge with jacuzzi’s and probably no stupid Dutch teenagers. I was very close to clicking the button to make a reservation (I could hear Helen screaming do it !! Just book it)  but I couldn’t bring myself to spend 100 for one night. Surely tonight I would get some sleep. A couple of hours later a couple of Australian girls (girls? They are 32) arrived, having had a nightmare journey from Bolivia, they were tired and hungry and just wanted a shower. However, they couldn’t find anyone to check them in so I suggested that they dump their stuff in my room and I would walk them into town and help them find the cashpoint and get some food. In the end they were staying in my room anyway, and we ended up going out for a meal and some beers together (they had creme brulee in the restaurant – I nearly wet myself with excitement – not quite Cafe Rouge but not bad). Bree and Elissa were a little concerned that I wouldn’t be able to cope with a couple of Aussies from Melbourne, but I explained that I was used to a couple of Aussies – Scotty and Kathyn, it was just like the good old days !! So we all got an early night – well that was the plan – except the lovely Dutch boys started again. So off I went and asked nicely, went out again and then gave up. So yet again another 2 hours sleep. The girls were off to Santiago the next morning so they headed off. We exchanged email addresses because they were going to be in Paraty and Rio the same time as me so we are planning to meet up. Sorry Jim in advance !!!

So actually me not booking that eco-lodge worked out for the best, because if I had booked in there I wouldn't have met Bree and Elissa. This is the one thing that I really love about travelling. It's the camaraderie that exists between travellers. First of all the willingless to help each other out, because we all know that all we have is each other i this big scary travelling world, and yes we have only just met, but we are all in it together so of course we will help. Then it's the way that friendships develop so quickly, there is not the usual pussy footing around for a few weeks, you just seem to get on really quickly. When we all went out for a meal, we had known each for 5 minutes but it seemed like I'd known them for months.

But, it was now Tuesday and yes, I was finally going to get out of the ‘not so lovely hostel’. I walked 100m down the road to my new hostel, where I had a huge room, a double bed and a lovely ensuite bathroom. It was about 35 in there with no air con, but hey great drying conditions. Finally some peace and quiet – or so I thought ...

It was like being in some alternate universe (not found Rose Tyler though). I’d had had a total of 6 hours sleep in the last 3 night. I was thinking all was fine as I was in my lovely new hostel. Transpires all was not ok. So I went for some food, and was planning an early night. Except from 8pm for four hours I was subjected to a marching band practicing. A marching band for heavens sake !! – I don’t even get how there is enough people who live in San Pedro de Atacama to be in a marching band. I popped out to find a shop with some water and there they were playing big blue french horns and tubas (like the one out of How I Met Your Mother – Yes Kathryn I have watched the first season).

Had I been shot and ended up in some form of purgatory for people who played the cornet really badly when they were 14 (a little known fact about me is that I used to play the cornet – I was very bad at it – Bill used to liken me to Sonia in Eastenders and her trumpet playing– I only got to grade 2 ). Surely I could have just gone go back to 1973 like Sam or 1981 like Alex (I know all the music and I’m sure I can pull of the shoulder pads and leg warmers look). And there was no sign of Gene Hunt or the quattro anywhere. Seriously I was thinking -  I should have gone to Santiago with the Aussies ...they have a starbucks there.

So the following day I wake up early and contemplated a bit of a lie in (due to my lack of sleep – again !!) But oh no – the ‘we’ve got blue trumpets and trombones’ marching band kicked off their practice at 6am. The worst of it was – that they only played one tune – and it’s barely one of those. So I head off into the town (it’s really a village) to escape and potter for a bit. I was off on an evening tour later. So at 4pm I get on yet another bus and head off on the Valle de la luna (Valley of the moon) tour. The Valle de la luna is famous for its resemblence to the surface of the moon (someone did a great job with the title there), owing to its different stratifications that are caused by natural environmental factors. I got talking to a lovely German girl (girl? About my age). I’d been on the bus from Calama with her as well so we recognised each other and got chatting. Turns out she has quit her job and has come out to Chile for a bit doing volunteer work in Santiago and was up in San Pedro for a couple of weeks on a break. She also has a husband back in Germany (she was being very vague in that one – did try to dig – but no joy). So we had a chat about life crises – turns out I’m not the only one then. So we stopped at lots of viewpoints, including the three Maria’s (personally I would have called them the three ‘something elses’ – from a certain angle they resembled something else – see photos) Apparenlty these formations are the result of intense erosional processes. They are composed of gravel, clay, salt gems and quartz and are approx one million years old. There were three obviously but apparently some tourist went on it and broke it – genuis !! The finale of the tour was the sunset over the valle de la luna. So we climbed some sand dune and watched the sun set, then back to San Pedro for a good sleep ....

But no  !! I’m still in the marching band purgatory. So I thought just forget it – I’ll just take the hell option. Remember I pushed Ian off the narrow boat when when we were little – yep that was me – and I stole the coke (did pay for it later) that nearly cost Richard his job and life in the Galapagos – so come on please put me out of my misery and send me down to the big, red, pretty dammed hot place below.  It was 2am and they are still practicing (no improvement as yet). I was by now actually contemplating heading out to find them and asking to join in – I’m sure they could do with someone on the triangle.

So it’s the next day and now suffering quite majorly from a lack of sleep, I head off on my final tour. I’m off across the altiplano to see the salt plains and some flamingoes. There are only three of us on the trip – myself and two Brazilian guys called Pablo and Rodrigo (very attractive and obviously very gay). Our guide and driver is a bloke called Williams who speaks very little English. My Spanish is still very slowly progressing, so this could be fun !! Fortunately Pablo is fluent in Spanish and English as well as Portuguese so translates for me the whole day. We have an amazing time, visiting some very lovely lakes at dawn (Laguna Minque and Laguna Miscanti), seeing some nice Chilean villages and going to the salt plains (Laguna Chaxa). At one stage Williams takes us to this place, just off the main road where there is this weird pole thing – poles at 90 degrees angles – like a compass. So one way is the ancient inca road that ran all the way from Peru to Santiago. It turns out (and I got quite excited by this), that the poles intersecting the old Inca road indicate the Tropic of Capricorn.

The final part of the tip is a visit Laguna Cejar de Tebinquinche, which is alagoon in the middle of the Atacama salt flat. Apparently it has  more salt than in the dead sea. It has a truly levitating experience in making you float. Everytime we tried to swim we just failed miserably. When you get out you have to be doused in water to try to remove the salt but I was caked in until I got back for a shower. Great way to lose weight though. If you stay in for while, water starts leaving your body (osmosis – takes me back to biology at school). Then back to San Pedro and some food. Actually found what all the practice  by the band was for  - there was a festival in town that night – and it had late-night fireworks !! 6 nights of really poor sleep – loving it !!!!

So following on from the San Pedo sleep deprivation experience I was leaving Chile for the last time and it was heading back again into Argentina. So I was a little bit nervous at the bus stop as I had to get this bus. I started talking to a Swiss woman, who was also waiting for the bus. We both did that thing of thinking the bus must exist as someone was waiting for it. Obviously it didn't mean anything, but we felt much better. It finally arrived and so we were off !! Well for about 2 minutes anyway. We all piled off as this was the Chilean border control. The actual border was about 160km away on the Paso de Jama. So we had to queue for about 1 hours to get through. Had a very bizarre chat with the Swiss woman, an Argentine bloke and a student from Chile. We ended up discussing Pippa Middleton (not a discussion I initiated). So across the Andes on an amazing road journey through altiplano and volcanoes. Just over the top of the pass (4400m) is the Argentine border control. Now I was pretty hopeful that this wouldn’t take long as in my past experience it’s pretty quick crossing into Argentina (had already done it 4 times). Not this time. The problem is this is a border that is close to Peru and Boliva and it’s the major drugs traficking route. So we had to wait an hour for another bus to get through. Then we all had to first of all do the immigration bit. Was a bit concerned this time as the immigration official took a long time with my passport. Mind you it did have a lot of Argentine stamps in it already and I had already crossed into the country 3 times already. Was I a British spy? (it really didn’t help that it was the day after Prince William had arrived in the Falklands and wound up the Argentinians again). But he did let me in. Then we had to get all of our bags off, line them up, then Bouncer IV ran around them for a bit (didn’t seem to be too effective, he just ran around wagging his tail – didn’t look like too much sniffing was taking place). There was also a lot of TV’s that came off the bus. Most people on the bus were from Argentina and had been to the Chilean coast for a holiday and to buy a cheap 32 inch Sony Bravia TV. It was like being in Dixons (sorry Curry’s). Then we had to take all of the bags back in and get them scanned. The whole process took about 2 hours. Me and my new Swiss friend were getting a little bit frustated by the complete lack of organisation. She was Swiss and into logistics and I’m a Virgo who loves organisation. By the end of it we had come up with a new strategy for improving efficiency at the border because it was a shambles. P*** up in a brewery sprang to mind. Then I suddenly remembered the existence of McVities dark chocolate digestives and home seemed a long way away.

So we finally made it into Salta at 11pm at night -  14 hours after we had left. The actual journey is only 250 miles but there were borders and very windy mountain roads to contend with. So it was farewell to Chile. It never really was part of the big plan to visit much of the country, partly because I knew very little about it (apart from General Pinochet and it has wine). But I must say that this really is a completely gorgeous country with stunning scenery and the most lovely people. Definately put it onto your to do list ...




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Comments

Katie Hall on

Hilarious as usual! Well impressed with the blue french horn! Sounds amazing even with sleep deprevation. We're all good here, working too many hours on-call but that can't be helped and the money is appreciated. Off to the Lakes for week at the end of the month (can't really compare to your fab photos) for our 10th anniversairy - can you believe that!!!

Keep enjoying yourself, very jealous but i don't think i would ever have the courage to do it. I will probably buy a pair of boobs and sports car! : D

xxxx

Bill on

Liz,

Brilliant yet again. I'm not sure that I was a good influence on your childhood. First Balu and now the Trumpet.
You must know now that you shouldn't listen to a word I say without checking.
Please keep your spirits up were all enjoying your blog.
Love you lots,
Bill
xxxx
xxx

?Jane - The Banned on

Well, now we know, your musical talents can always be put to good use with the Banned - d'ya wanna join? I'm sure Pat won't mind the noise!

Brill Blog Liz.

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